Independent media is collapsing. Across the world news is taking a different form, starkly against the realities of the past. Nowhere is this more felt than in West Africa’s most populated country Nigeria. Just last weekend, we celebrated the World Press Freedom Day, many of us sending out tweets and making Facebook posts, but probably without enough reflection as to how truly unhealthy the nature of our democracy is, and why it is important to re-evaluate the role, position and importance of our press to our democracy, and to our very lives.
To understand the news and information gap today, one quick example comes to mind. Our president has just returned from a foreign trip but a whole country had no clue where he was and what he was doing. Events like this only exacerbate the shrinking trust between the producers and consumers of news. On another front, “fake news” manufacturers are blurring the lines of truth and forcing ethical media practitioners to seek out extreme verification systems within the already slim budgets for producing news.
It is easy to point out all the ways that media is being done wrongly in Nigeria – media isn’t paid for in Nigeria, journalists aren’t paid and rely on “brown envelopes” - a cash for coverage scheme. Media houses are compromised as their survival is hinged on patronage and funding from political actors. Fake news is rife and spreading across the country motivated by ethno-religious and regional sentiments and so on and so forth. Journalists can be arrested and jailed with impunity by politicians without repercussion. The World Press Freedom Day affords us the opportunity to review how we perceive the critical role of journalism in society.
I attended a fireside chat on World Press Freedom day, organized by public strategy group, Gatefield. The chat played host to two impeccable journalists: Samuel Ogundipe of investigative paper, Premium Times and Mercy Abang, an independent journalist and publisher. The organisers had an intent to create an atmosphere designed to stimulate conversations around press freedom. Quite unlike the often highly charged atmospheres which results in journalists competing to produce jaw dropping accounts of their experience practicing journalism in Nigeria, the fireside chat was subtle, calm, perhaps even inspiring honest criticism and creativity. And beyond the ambience, a healthy review of the journalisms state of the nation.
To be free, or to seem to be free?
What does press freedom mean? Is it to free the press from politicians, to free journalists from editorial problems, to free the local news platforms from lies and deception, or to free the Nigerian people and her friends in other countries from the darkness of misinformation? To this Mercy responded:
“Freedom comes when you are able to write a story and not be afraid. When you don’t have to drive and look at your back. When friends don’t have to alienate you to feel safe. When your family is still safe after you publish a story. Freedom is to feel the press as an occupation and not as a hazardous way of life.”
Newsrooms in Nigeria begin like independent research laboratories. Everyone there is motivated by the same thing – to contribute to their country through knowledge, experiment and evidence. But a lot of journalists who find themselves in the newsroom are defeated by its intricacies. To find yourself in a space that pays you less than you contribute and still persist is a lot. To suffer life threatening experiences because of your passion is another.
Mercy raises a fundamental question about the value of the life of a Nigerian journalist. How can the populace get valid information to benefit their lives when the agents of information are going extinct? And yes, it is not far fetched. Several journalists across the country are fast becoming a public relations plug for corporate brands, politicians and wealthy individuals.
Journalists Vs Journalism
But beyond the journalists as actors in the space that need to be allowed to work, these actors themselves (journalists) need to contribute towards placing journalism in a better position than where it is today. Ogundipe speaking during the chat said:
“There are fake news factories across the country where people deliberately produce and distribute news that are disturbing and dangerous to our democracy. There are journalists out there sharing unverified information.”
Issues like these, constitute a major setback to the reverence of the journalism profession. While there is threat to journalists, there is also threat to the very ethics of journalism and how it is practiced across the country. There are institutional barriers and social and economic ones as well.
“The military doesn’t respond to the FOI (Freedom of Information) request. In other countries you can go to jail for this action. This shows institutional clogs fighting against press freedom in itself. The biggest story we ever ran under the FOI was only possible through an error by a public office holder.”
These subtle and not so subtle intricacies force us to inquire into the nature of journalism in Nigeria today and the future of Africa’s most populated nations fourth estate. Today, politicians and the fourth estate are on a long war of attrition. Both pointing fingers at the other, both unwilling to yield ground. Both insensitive to the effects of their actions on the country and its people. The nature of the problem is more intrinsic as the both parties are technically one and the same - media ownership structure in Nigeria especially at the onset, was established by the political class. But journalists and media houses can respond to this problem differently.
This phenomena is not a Nigerian problem, it is global. In the US state, President Trump has openly labelled media houses as producers of fake news. In Hungary, which currently serves as the best example to the demise of independent media in the West - all national radio stations, and all 18 regional newspapers, six public televisions stations, and the country’s news agency MTI, are owned by politicians
The problem is largely economic. The fireside chat is a launchpad for the organizers response to this problem. Gatefield is working with local journalists and platforms to seek out ways to get more value for their work and to wean themselves off dirty money and control. The organisation intends to incentivise public service reporting and will launch a prize this year, Adewunmi Emoruwa, who leads the firm announced.
Journalists will have to find new means to source their money to become unentangled from the power dynamics which presently constitutes the biggest existential threat to journalism. This is where true freedom lies for journalism. Perhaps, this also resonates with Mercy’s closing quote on media independence.
“You have to go out there and find money for your journalism work. As long as you have to depend on me for money, one day I can wake up and tell you the type of story to run.”
Bio: Tahir Sherriff is a Development Researcher working with local and international media to advance social change. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria.